This Vici project, funded by NWO, uses the case of oil in the 1970s to understand why companies adopt or reject alternative energy and conservation, and uses that understanding to facilitate an energy transition.
The necessity of an energy transition is clear. Indeed, fossil fuels’ dangers have been long understood, as have technological alternatives. So why are fossil fuels still dominant? Historians claim oil firms undermined climate science and alternative energy to hinder an energy transition. However, in the 1970s some oil executives promoted environmentalism and forecasts of “limits to growth” caused by resource scarcity. Most major oil firms invested in solar and nuclear energy before abandoning those technologies in the 1980s. This project uses the case of oil in the 1970s to understand why companies adopt or reject alternative energy and conservation, and uses that understanding to facilitate an energy transition. The project asks:
1. How and why did many oil firms and executives: (A) construct ties to environmentalists and alternative energy in the 1970s; and (B) disengage in the 1980s in favor of alliances with climate denialists?
2. How did oil industry actors react to and mold the “landscape” of resource shortages, public opinion, demographics, and geopolitics within which they shifted toward and then away from alternative energy technologies?
3. What does this abortive energy transition tell us about sustainability transition theory?
Valorization opportunities flow from project findings: if oil firms and executives once engaged with environmentalism and alternative energy then decision-makers, journalists, and the public should know why they disengaged – and whether they could re-engage. The PI, two PhD candidates (Jelena Stankovic and Michiel Bron), and a postdoc approach these questions by examining archival and published historical documents (e.g., correspondence, project reports, transcripts of lawsuits) and interviews related to oil firms’ contributions to these scarcity technologies: biotechnology/computing (PI), nuclear power (PhD 1), solar energy (PhD 2), and environmentalism/resource forecasting (postdoc). Project staff will synthesize these studies in a co-authored monograph.